Monday, November 3, 2014
"Chicken" Efemia Chela
It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely. From this place, I watched fairy lights being looped low over long tables and rose bushes being pruned. The matching china came out with the crystal glasses. The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away. A credit card and a note on the fridge told me to go and buy a new dress (“At least knee-length, Kaba!!”). The entire dusty front yard was swept. Forthright, our maid, swept it once from the middle to the left and once from the middle to the right ensuring even distribution. She minced around the edges of the yard until she reached the right spot. Then she lovingly gave the earth a centre parting, like she was doing the hair of the daughter she seldom saw. Deftly, she made concentric circles with the rake, making certain not to be backed into a corner as she was in life. Paving would have been more in line with the style of the double storey house, the stiff mahogany headboard in my parents’ bedroom and the greedy water feature in the atrium. “From the dust we came and to it we return,” my father said cryptically whenever anyone asked why. Our relatives whispered in covens that BaBasil should have gotten ‘crazy paving’. They were adept at spending money that wasn’t theirs and would never be, due to equal measures of indolence and bad luck. The same relatives called me down to some new-found duty. I slouched my way to them and despaired again that these women would never know me as an equal. Instead, I was a comedic interlude breaking up days of haggling in markets, turning smelly offal into scrumptious delicacies, hand-washing thin and dim-coloured children’s clothes, and serving dinner to their husbands on knees that could grate cheese. I pitied them too much to be truly angry. Celebrations transformed them into long-lost gods and goddesses. We enticed them with Baker’s Assorted biscuits, school shoes and endless pots of tea. They descended from the village and came to town. Sacrifices were made; I kissed most of my haircare products and magazines goodbye. But it was worth it even though they were near strangers tied to us by nothing more than genetics, a sense of duty and vague sentimentality. Who else could pound fufu for hours without complaint until it reached the correct unctuous and delightfully gloopy texture that Sister Constance demanded? Uncle Samu, my mother’s brother had driven away his third wife with a steady rain of vomit and beatings. As the family’s best drunk he could play palm-wine sommelier. His bathtub brew was mockingly clear. Getting drunk on it felt like being mugged. And by midnight he and Mma Virginia, who according to family legend were kissing cousins in the literal and sordid sense, could always be counted on to break out ‘The Electric Slide’ to the entertainment of everyone watching. My aunties’ voices rang out from a corner of the garden that had escaped my mother’s plot to turn it into a suburban Tuscan nightmare. I weaved between the tacky replicas of Greek statues I had studied at university. The statues bulged like marble tumors from the lawn. A brown sea snail slid round The Boxer’s temple. A rogue feather blew past Venus in the wind. Sister Constance smacked her lips against her remaining teeth in disgust, “You took so long. They spoil you-o!” I didn’t reply and just contorted my features into what I thought was penance and respect. “Let them have this,” I thought. “They’ll let me go soon.” After all, my mother, if she heard I had been too insolent, was far worse than all of them combined. They told me to kill them – three plain white chickens. Expressionless and unsuspecting, they pecked the air while I shuddered above them, a wavering shadow. I searched myself for strength and violence while rolling up the sleeves of my blue Paul Smith shirt. “I guess I’ll have to kiss this goodbye too,” I thought glumly. I was about to look like an extra who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time in a Quentin Tarantino film. I curled my sweaty fingers around a knife that someone had pressed into my right hand. I remember thinking how blunt it seemed; inappropriate for the task ahead. But then I grabbed a chicken and felt its frailty. “Wring and cut, Kaba. Wring and cut!” someone shouted. I was too queasy an executioner. My shaking exacerbated the death flapping of the fowls and their blood spurts. I kept going. One. Two. Three. Gone in a couple of minutes. I barely heard the meat hitting the silver-bottomed tub. I was roused from my trance by the glee-creased face of Aunt Lovemore. As I tried to make my way to a shower, one shirt sleeve dripping, my mind emptied and all that remained was something someone once said to me or maybe... I couldn’t tell where it was from. I still can’t tell. It was: “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.” The feast was that night. I looked at myself in the back of a serving spoon that had some stray grains of white rice smeared on it. No one would need it. Who could be bothered with Basmati when there was kenke to be unwrapped from wilted banana leaves like a present? When nshima so soft and personable was at the serving table in a large white quivering pile just waiting for some kapenta and an eager palate to come by? No, the Basmati would be given to the beggars who came by in the morning and expected nothing less from one of the town’s richest families. Our generosity fostered expensive tastes. My parents’ cross-cultural marriage made for an exciting culinary event. From my father’s side came slow-cooked beef shin in a giant dented tin pot. Simply done, relying only on the innate flavour of the marbled red cubes of flesh and thinly sliced onion getting to know each other for hours. It was smoked by open charcoal fire and lightly seasoned with nothing but the flecks of salty sweat from nervy Auntie Nchimunya constantly leaning over the steaming pot. Mushrooms were cooked as simply as Sister Chanda’s existence. Fungi was hoped for in the night and foraged for at dawn. My favourites were curly-edged, red on top with a yellow underskirt and fried in butter. My lip curled as someone passed me a bowl of uisashi, wild greens and peanuts mashed into a bitty green mess. Little cousins cheekily defied their rank and begged for the prized parsons’ noses from the grilled chickens. My chickens. Their shiny mouths indicated they’d already had more than enough chicken for the night and their age. Tauntingly, I popped one of the tails into my mouth and refused to pass them the crammed tray. My mother, desperate not to be upstaged by her husband, reminded us all of her issue. The Fante chief’s daughter, swathed in kente brought kontombire. It was a swamp-like spinach stew flooded with palm oil, thickened with egusi, specked with smoked mackerel and quartered hard-boiled eggs. It was carried to the table by three people, in a boat-shaped wood tureen from our mezzanine kitchen and the ancient forests of Ghana. Even her mother-in-law was impressed. She unwrinkled her forehead and loosened her fists a little, revealing her fingers stained so yellow by the sauce. From behind my thick pane of one-way glass, I saw my uncle had a bit of red garden egg stuck in his beard, but munched along cheerily, stopping briefly only to push round glasses up the bridge of his Ampapata nose. He was ignoring his side of waakye. I was tempted to take it and scoff it myself but then I looked down, remembering the chunk of succulent grasscutter that I’d pinched from Ma Virginia’s bowl of light soup, still slightly hairy with a bit of gristle dangling from it. She was busy scanning the party for Uncle Samu’s characteristic beaten-in black fedora. Grasscutter, fried okra and plantain. Now that would be tasty. The chair to my left was empty but I preferred it to the barrage of information about my 30-year-old cousin’s upcoming wedding, courtesy of our great-grandmother on my right. “Bridget is off the shelf! Ow-oh! “Praise God! The glory is all yours, Jesus! “She’s so fat and in all the wrong places. Oh! And she insists on this mumbling. Gah! And the boys just weren’t coming, you know. So many weddings she had to see and cry at but no one was crying for her. “Ei! You know you guys, you’re just like their parents. You go abroad to these cold places where money is supposed to grow on trees. Even though there is no sun. You marry these white girls and boys who would die during our dry season, they are so thin. All bones. You get kept over there and we just hear news. Small-small news. And that you’re making it big out there, with our name. But never come back. Oh God! “But luckily this one never left. Just did what he was told to. A job, at least. Nothing much. But in the government, filing papers and not even important ones. So he will never get on the party’s bad side like my brother did in the 60s. Eh-eh! No we can’t have all that trouble again. Even though, God-willing we would recover. “Now I can say all my girls are settled. Uh-huh! I can die now. Someone else is responsible for them now. They will do as I did. They will live as I lived. I have made them so. I have taught them well. They will never lose themselves. That is enough. Yes. That is enough. What other claim does a wife have?” A chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table was for the DJ. There was a stack of records and the glow of a MacBook illuminated my older brother’s face. He played eclectically, switched from computer to record player. Computer to Supermalt. Supermalt to record player. Mostly high life, with Earth, Wind and Fire, Glen Miller and Elton John. The musical liturgy of the family. Everything he knew would please. Near the bottom of the pile of records I saw a tiny snail that had escaped being stewed, creeping slowly upside down on the underside of a WITCH LP. The fairy lights doused everyone in a soft glow. I think I was happy dancing with my little niece in the dust to the music; my heels forgotten by the hedge. Our yard was crowded and noisy until the sun came up. When I woke up in the afternoon, the noise echoed and resonated within me. It had embossed my inner ear. I’d captured it all. My brother had mentioned once that the earth was a conductor of acoustical resonance. If it’s true, maybe the same goes for people. The night played over and over again. I was there shrouded by night. I looked around the garden with moistened eyes, a bulb of white wine condensing in my hand. I saw growing piles of soiled dishes whisked away by staff. Cutlery gleaming like silver bones under the moonlight. The people, the scale, the grandeur. It wasn’t really anything to do with me at all. II I never wanted to admit it to anyone, but times were tough. I’d just left university with a distinction no one asked about. I barely managed to convince someone to hire me. Employers thought eight years of tertiary studies had left a gaping hole where experience should have been. In the year that the markets crashed, I was assured that the crisis would have sorted itself out by the time I entered the job market. It was nothing like that. I probably should have studied something more practical, but stubbornly I believed in my research. That there was really a place in the world for what I believed in. I rented a room in the bum end of town and there I plotted my future. I played clairvoyant, gazing over my neighbours’ corrugated iron roofs into the cavernous eyes of the mountain. Those were abrasive mornings. I tried to ignore the strangers in the abandoned lot opposite my window. Girls returned there the morning after the fact, looking for their dignity in the dirt or lost plastic chandelier earrings. Boys sprayed their scent on the crumbling wall, eyes on the lookout for scrap metal. The train rattled by, creaking as if each stop would be its last. Sometimes it was. I was late to work often. Gaudy prostitutes swooped indoors like vampires at first glimpse of the rising sun and the garbage men, part-time fathers of their children. My relationship with my parents festered. I could expect disapproving text messages and automatic EFTs into my account. They sent me a pittance for rent and over the years had made sure to cultivate the kind of unspoken relationship that meant I wouldn’t dare to ask for more money. Every ping in my inbox signaled another accusation. They told me that I was still young and there was still time to start a law degree. I baulked; their alms lessened. I tried not to let their unpleasantness taint my days, curdle the sea I swam in or sharpen the wind. That coastal wind, a blustering soundtrack to my days in that seaside city. It pranked me in public, lifting my skirt. I, and undoubtedly others, got used to a flash of my thigh and untrimmed hedge creeping just past the edge of my briefs. I wasn’t having enough sex to be greatly concerned with my appearance down there. Nothing in my top drawer could be rightly termed lingerie. In a town where everyone, through lies or privilege, was cooler and richer than you, I felt like I didn’t even have to try. It was liberating. I went where my heart led me. Took tables for one. That’s not to say I was starved for sex though. Every so often things would happen. Like at this party one weekend. The party went down at a formerly whites-only pub that had been reclaimed, much like the word ‘slut’ had been some years before. “Oh my god! Eb! You little slut! I love you!” shrieked my friend, Alice, all arms and legs. And at this moment, her arms were wrapped around the neck of her polyamorous boything, Eb. His real name was Ebenezer, I think. I was embarrassed by black parents who still handed out Dickensian names to their children as if it would advance them up the hegemony. Though kudos to those kids too dark to blush called Aloysius and Enid for rebranding themselves as Loyo and Nida. The colonial pub, all flakey gilt frames and lined beige wallpaper tempered by dark woods, was full of them. Of us, I mean. Another generation tasked with saving Africa, yet ignoring the brief. Overwhelmed, we sought to please ourselves as best we could, whether that meant siphoning profits off family businesses, accepting scholarships overseas and never looking back or being assimilated into the incompetent state. Laughing, talking, smoking and dancing we could have been young people on any continent. A girl and a boy sat down beside me and, after a perfunctory hello, asked me to join their threesome. Rather a forward approach, I thought, but then the boy backed out after I feigned some interest. He ran off. “I think he’s spooked. Sorry. I–” she said, trying to salvage the situation. I raised my eyebrows in response and she leant towards me in a way that could only mean one thing. She led the intrepid exploration of my mouth with a gentle suction that left me gasping at once for air and more of her. I gripped her side. We ended up in my single bed. I wasn’t dogmatic enough in my desire to be a lesbian but I liked the symmetry of being with a woman. Breast to breast. Gender didn’t matter really anyway. I talked to Alice over coffee about it. I remember saying, “Boys. Girls. Whatever. We’re always just two people searching... fumbling towards something.” Before she awoke, I surveyed her half-covered body. I was in awe as I always was when someone wanted to have sex with me. And then I saw it. Holding down her bottom lip with a finger, I tried not to wake her while getting a better look. It was an inner lip tattoo. God, it must have hurt – an egg. A single egg. I didn’t have time to ponder what it meant. She woke and instantly seemed embarrassed. Not by her fevered cries that split the night or the way she had gushed a little between her legs when her body was racked with pleasure. She was embarrassed by the window edges taped shut to keep out the cold. The suitcase instead of a dresser. My crusty two-plate stove that I made nshima and beans on every day that it didn’t short circuit the whole floor. She dressed in silence, turned away. When she did turn back, she looked at me, her eyes softened by pity. A bite of the lip said she hadn’t realised what happened last night was a charity event. She scuffed her Converse on the rough floor as if trapped and bored. “It-it was lovely,” she said haltingly, trying not to meet my eyes again. It was quiet for so long after that I nearly missed her squeak. “You might need this more than I do,” she said, leaving R100, like a bird dropping, crumpled on the blue crate I called a nightstand. I didn’t leave my room for two days after. The sheets trembled. But after my grief, I smoothed out what she thought I was worth and went and bought myself some fancy gin. After that I worked harder at work than ever. I was one of 100 unpaid interns at the bottom of a global firm. Our only hope of getting hired was archiving gossip and evidence of affairs or theft amongst our superiors and using them as leverage once we became brave enough. I regret not being braver. My days went down the drain as I alphabetised contact lists and took coffee orders. I filed things. Then retrieved them for executives a couple of days later. Then was told to redo the filing system. One night I was given orders by one of the art directors. She was having a crisis, she said. Meaning, she was on a deadline and her cokeaddled brain had no vision for the client’s product. It was two days to the big pitch and she needed to “cleanse to create” so I had to rub all her erasers until I reached a clean surface on every inch of all 30 of them. Grumpily, I walked to her desk. First, I checked the pockets of the fawn-coloured jacket draped over her chair. I rustled for snacks, change or something to pep me up. Rustle. Rustle. But nothing. Except a business card. Rectangular and rounded at the edges, it read: Karama Adjaye Benin, Chief Recruiter, FutureChild Inc. The ovum bank you can trust. III I envied people who talked in certainties and absolutes. In plans and futures. I felt like I had nothing. Whether doubt, anger or hunger gnawed at my stomach became irrelevant. I set aside time at home to cry. I used the internet at work to find more jobs, but I was already stretched thin on that front. Sleep was for the in-between moments, wherever they fell. I lied my way into focus groups and market surveys for products I couldn’t afford. My heels wore down. My gait changed. I saw myself in the blacked-out windows of a skyscraper en route to somewhere. At first I didn’t realise who the hurried girl with the hunched back was. I looked again. She looked hunted. I had to stay home trying to keep warm or risk having to party sober. I could coast through end-of-the-month weekend when everyone was generous at the bar or people threw parties at houses with cellars and drinks cabinets. Sometimes at clubs like The Pound, I let old men call me a doll and dribble nonsense in my ear over synth beats and the squeak of pleather. I listened, smiled and was intermittently witty, but generally I only spoke to say, “Double Jack, please.” They were men who lived on promises. I starved on hope. This was fourthwave feminism. I considered prostitution quite seriously after that one night stand with Ananda. The concept didn’t seem so far-fetched any more. In a way, the business card was my chance. Their offices were in an innocuous looking building not far from the CBD. It was difficult to know what to wear, but I wanted to look like someone who deserved to be reproduced. I looked nervously out the window at the wet mist blurring anyone who had the temerity to leave the house. I picked my most ironed dress and a smart jacket and took a hardback book to read. This choice too was the source of some anguish as it needed to be big enough to hide my face in case I saw someone I knew, but also had to double as a tool to intrigue and impress the recruiter. My father had always said Ulysses would come in handy someday. I was angry that he was right. The chrome chair felt sterile and sharp against my body. I looked around at the waiting room, gooey with pink branding about ethnically diverse angels, mama birds and dreams. All the framed stock photos were rosy assumptions of family life. I tried to concentrate on filling out the form handed to me. It was the only truth I had dealt with in a long time. I found it refreshing. I couldn’t fail here. I was qualified to do this, to be a donor. I would get a bonus for every year of post-graduate study I had achieved. Checking all the details, I was glad my natural mediocrity had its uses – healthy, black, 65kg, brown-eyed woman. A non-smoking, 24 year old, with regular periods and taking no contraceptives. A little girl with pigtails and a pinafore smiled up at me from my lap. These photos would complete my personal zine, to be handed over to the agency for consideration. The girl was blissfully unaware of what was happening, just smiling shyly like she always would. I turned her over. Why were the blank lines so easy when life was so hard? I looked so different on paper. Broken down into sections, I barely recognised myself. I felt that I had only ever heard of this woman, had never met her. I fake-read my book, which gave me time to really mull over what I was doing. I was sure it didn’t matter. The eggs were just lying around inside of me going to waste on the twelfth of every month. From what I remembered from school, I had thousands of them in reserve. I was a veritable mine of genetic material. This is was nothing to cry over. I signed my contract while lying on my back, during one of several ultrasounds. Injection by injection I began to think that it was meant to be. Maybe it was the hormones. The red-headed woman doing the extraction sacrificed congeniality for professionalism. I gathered that she wore all white, even outside work. The only thing that differentiated her from a robot was her revelation that she had also been a donor, albeit in her thirties. “I was just young enough. I had a lot of bills. I wanted to give the gift of parenthood to someone less fortunate,” she said, as if from a script. To convey emotion, she punctuated her speech with weird bobs of the head. To make awkward conversation while doing my scans, she asked about my degree. I sensed misunderstanding. Sometime after third year, I had learnt to let the confusion pass without comment or justification. They’d see. “Your ovaries are doing well.” A few months later I was forced to look up at her like I had several times before. Her whole face was like clingfilm, wrapped fast across sinew and bone. I squinted up, then dropped my head down, away from the scrutiny of the powerful lights. My neck slackened as I breathed in the gas. I lost consciousness counting backwards. “You’re a hero now,” said Karama as I stumbled out, still a little woozy and anaesthetised. Trying to be kind, she crushed me into her body. I didn’t feel like anyone’s saviour, even though there were two red stigmata in my knickers. My phone beeped somewhere at the bottom of my bag letting me know that I had been paid. I ignored it. After the extraction, I felt less lost. I knew exactly where I was and where I was going. I went home and climbed up the rickety fire escape to the roof, holding on fearfully to the rail afflicted with rust, making it wart-like to the touch. The cold mist cloaked me in damp as I stepped onto the crunchy pigeon shit roof. I stood motionless looking down at the swaddled city. I knew what was hidden below the mist. Shacks slanted with uncertainty. Sixlane highways and car ads clinging to billboards beside them. Wide boulevards bordered by alien trees and thin housewives in cafés. Narrow byways lined with needles. Underfunded primary schools with middle-aged men parked outside trying not to eat the sweets they used as bait. Cold modern apartment blocks; all light, expense and lack of privacy. Secret leisure houses cowering behind high walls. Leaning road signs waiting to be stolen by students. All of these places. I would never know where my child would be. No, I would. I would always be beating paths for it to follow. It would wind its way around my brain. I’d stage shadow puppet shows on the walls of my skull, playing out its careers, hobbies and loves. One director, one spectator. I didn’t want the child to be sheared between two lives, two minds, two imaginations. My own and its own. I pleaded to no one that they would spare it, not rip it apart. I hoped my ghost would not smother it. That my wishes would not hamper it. I prayed it wouldn’t be pained. Or nagged by the phantom limb – the gnawing mystery of my existence. I wanted its parents to take all the credit. I hoped they would never tell it. That my donation would just be fiction.